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What Was He Thinking?

Recently, I was commentating on BBO during the finals of the USBF team trials when this hand came up:

West
K9
K7
1098743
Q54
North
AQJ4
A5
K
AK8762
East
7632
J963
AQJ6
J
South
1085
Q10842
52
1093
W
N
E
S
P
2
P
2
?
D

I suspect 99% of players would pass without thought—I admit I would have. However the expert player who held these cards overcalled 3. Now I can guess what you are thinking, “He made a terrible bid. How could a top player bid like that?”

Before I say more about the hand, a short digression. The hand was held by Geoff Hampson. Geoff is one of America’s best players and has amply demonstrated he belongs in the conversation for greatest bridge players in the entire world. He is known as:

  • a superb technical player, capable of finding the most difficult plays
  • a fearless bidder unafraid to take a risk if it rates to helps him win

When a player of his ability violates the bidding consensus, it is worth thinking about what motivated him. 

We have been taught to examine the dangers of a preempt. On this hand the dangers are not hard to see. The diamond suit is weak, the side honors are soft, and the side suit shape is bad. It would not be a shock to take 3-4 tricks declaring in 3-X. For most of us, that is as much as we need to know, a 3 call is wildly unsafe. Geoff certainly knows all this, however he looks deeper. He looks at what a bid might win as well as what it might lose. Geoff would never risk -1400 in 3-X unless there was also a good chance to win IMPs by bidding. So what did Geoff see?

A 3 bid will prevent LHO from bidding 2, 2, or 3 disrupting the enemy’s ability to find a fit. If LHO has a 2-suited hand, he will introduce the first one at the 3-level and may never get to bid the second. 

Neither opponent has yet communicated any information about their shape. If the opponents had begun the auction (1/) — P — (2) — ? they would have already communicated quite a bit and would not need much bidding room to finish describing their hands. In that auction, 3 has the same risk, but much less disruptive effect and hence less chance to win IMPs. 

The opponents are vulnerable and we are not. If Geoff could escape for -3 in 3-X, he might actually win IMPs for his dangerous bid. The opponents have to beat him 5 tricks to earn a penalty significantly larger than their game bonus and in 3-X that would mean holding him to only four tricks.  So the actual risk is not as big as one might think. 

There may have been other considerations as well. His LHO may not have had a penalty double available. That increases the chance of skipping out unscathed when the opponents can collect a number. Geoff was a passed hand. His partner should recognize that his hand must be flawed not to have preempted the round before and so should be careful.

This deal was the perfect confluence of factors that favor risky preemptive bidding:

  • The mathematics of the scoring supported taking chances.
  • The opponents had not yet shown distribution or limited values; they have a lot of information yet to exchange.
  • The 3 call was high enough to stress their subsequent bidding
  • The opponent’s methods make it difficult to catch him speeding.

So what actually happened when Geoff bid 3? The second half of the story contains another interesting lesson. 

West
K9
K7
1098743
Q54
North
AQJ4
A5
K
AK8762
East
7632
J963
AQJ6
J
South
1085
Q10842
52
1093
W
N
E
S
 
P
2
P
2
3
4
5
X
P
5
P
6
P
P
6
X
P
P
?
D
 

When Geoff heard LHO bid 4, he must have been delighted. Whatever shape LHO held, the enemy’s auction was now a guessing game. If they belonged in a 4/ contract, they were likely to miss their fit. if they belonged in clubs, they have little chance to pick the correct level scientifically.

Unfortunately, Geoff’s partner Eric Greco held AQJx and a side singleton. Eric bid the obvious 5

RHO, Gavin Wolpert, was happy to double 5 with his near Yarborough. Geoff was probably cringing at this moment, hoping the opponents could make game and he could hold 5-X to -4. Perhaps this unfortunate outcome deserved more consideration earlier. However, at this moment, a surprise horse rode to Geoff’s rescue.

LHO still had no idea where the missing non-diamond honors were. He guessed his partner might have one instead of Geoff so he pulled 5-X into 5. RHO then converted to 6.

What a difference a round of bidding makes. A moment ago, Geoff was looking at losing 5-10 IMPs in 5X. Now, he has an excellent chance to win 13 IMPs defending 6 which is likely to go down. Geoff passed with alacrity, waiting to defend.

But hark, partner still has a call. Eric Greco considered his action for a long time. He looked at the tempting vulnerability and finally bid 6. Eric probably reckoned that 6-X would be going -300 or -500 which would be less than the +600 or +620 he expected his teammates to bring back in 5. Now, Eric may have felt some trepidation. He knows Geoff’s bidding style better than any of us so he was aware Geoff might have more defense and less offense than expected. 

RHO doubled 6 and the auction rested. Geoff finished down 3 for -500 and lost 9 IMPs when his teammates stopped in 3 making 5. It was an exciting hand to watch and my emotions see-sawed on every round. 

Even if you don’t agree with Geoff’s bid, the hand offers plenty to learn about expert thinking. 

When considering a preemptive overcall, ask whether your call will interfere with the opponents’s ability to exchange information. A call is most likely to interfere if made before the opponents have passed much information and when the call is high enough to prevent the enemy from showing all their suits. When you make a risky call without stealing needed bidding room, it is like betting $100 dollars on a horse that only pays $10 when it wins.

When watching top players and their bidding surprises you, either they

  • know something you don’t
  • have analyzed the auction more deeply than you have

Resist the temptation to be judgmental. If you get curious rather than judgmental, you might learn something.

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